As product managers, we're constantly building, launching, and iterating on products, features, and use cases. Along the way, we make a sequence of decisions about what to build, how to build, and how to improve and iterate on our features and products.
Since these decisions build on each other, it's important to understand what assumptions we're operating under, what facts we already have, and what past decisions we've already made.
We can broadly classify these decisions into four phases of the product development process:
Most product and feature work tends to go through these stages of the development process, often in a linear fashion. While there are exceptions, these stages of the product development process provide a good mental model to evaluate and classify decisions.
Two long-time experts in product, Jiaona Zhang the VP of Product at Webflow and Anand Subramani the SVP of Product at Path, helped create this four-part framework that can provide even the aspirational product manager with a strong understanding of what product development is and the role the product manager plays in the process.
Both of these Reforge Experts have over 15 years of experience as product leaders and mentors at multi-billion dollar companies like Zynga, Gusto, Dropbox, Pilot, Webflow, Airbnb, and WeWork.
Here, we’ll walk through the four key phases, or steps, of the product development process. We’ll dig deeper to see what it really means to be successful at each phase, and we’ll consider the role of the product manager and their cross-functional counterparts.
Meet The Contributors
As the SVP of Product at Webflow, JZ has spent her career building products people love at companies like Airbnb, WeWork, and Dropbox. She is an active angel investor, lecturer at Stanford, and creator of Reforge’s Product Management Foundations course. She is the mom of two and renovates houses in her (rare) spare time.Learn More
Anand is the SVP of Product at Path and has been teaching Product Management at Stanford University for 6 years. Prior to Path, Anand was the VP of Product at Pilot and held product leadership roles at Gusto, Dropbox, and Zynga. He is also an investor/advisor in around ~50 startups.Learn More
What is Product Development?
Product development is the multi-faceted process of thinking through and researching an idea, designing it, building it, and taking it to market. The product development process has four key phases: opportunity validation, design, development, and launch and iteration. Product managers are well-positioned to oversee each part of the product development process.
Within each phase are a variety of additional considerations, methodologies, best practices, and secrets to success. We’ve spent extensive time thinking about each of the four key pillars of product development and how the work gets done. Let’s now break down each part of the process.
Product Development Phase 1: Opportunity Validation
The first product development stage is opportunity validation, which is actually the process of defining what problems you want to solve and for whom. The opportunity validation phase of the product development process is all about the discovery of new opportunities and vetting whether or not building the product makes sense.
You likely have reason to believe there is a problem here worth looking into, probably based on some sort of hypothesis or the product strategy of your company. But before feature specs are developed or any code is written, product managers need to decide what to build and validate whether it will create value for their users and their business.
Three Components Of Opportunity Identification
In this information gathering phase of the work, product managers should ask themselves three key questions to gauge strategic fit, user value, and business value.
- Is the feature or product going to be a strategic fit as it relates to our roadmap?
- Are we creating value for the user?
- Does building the feature or product indicate a strong return on investment?
Let’s look a bit more closely at what we mean by strategic fit, user value, and business value.
- Strategic Fit: When an opportunity is aligned with the business strategy at every level it is a strategic fit. This means the new product or feature will contribute to the goals of the team, product, and company. In addition, when the feature or product you plan to build has strategic fit, you get buy-in from the leadership team and your cross-functional stakeholders more easily.
- User Value: It is critically important to understand the user and represent them within the company. Understanding and validating users’ problems enable product managers to build features and products that solve them. If your product doesn’t solve a relevant user problem, intuitively, it’s much less likely to be adopted by users.
- Business Value: Ultimately, your goal should be to solve a relevant user problem in a way that also captures some form of value for the business. For example, a project that streamlines a payment process could improve your sales conversion rate, therefore improving the company’s revenue.
The Opportunity Validation Process
Once you validate that your opportunity has strategic fit, user value, and business value, you need to communicate and build alignment with all relevant stakeholders, including leadership. It's not enough to validate that an opportunity has all three components. Building alignment is a key part of the opportunity and validation phase of the product development process.
You can validate an opportunity by building alignment in four steps:
- Conduct a manager briefing. A manager briefing is a meeting with your manager in which you can gather information about the project you have just been assigned, and align on the expectations of that work.
- Refine the user value. Now you are ready to ensure the opportunity will benefit the user. The refining process requires direct engagement with users using quantitative and qualitative methods. User interviews are a foundational tool for product managers.
- Refine the business value. The original assumptions shared during your manager briefing could be inaccurate. So you need to be sure you’re working on a project that will deliver for the business by redefining the business value at this stage.
- Validate and communicate the opportunity. A failure here canmanifest in three ways and can throw the whole product development process into chaos. The first is that the core product team — engineers and designers — will have to redo work because they lack clarity on the problem and why they are solving it. The second is late-stage blow-ups. The third is that dependency teams deprioritize your project because they don’t understand the value of your project.
Once the product manager has worked through the entire opportunity and validation process of the product development process, they are ready to move on to the design phase. As a reminder, the opportunity analysis phase focuses on whether or not the product or feature they want to build is a strategic fit, user value, and business value.
Product Development Phase 2: Design
The second phase of the product development process is design. The design stage of the product development process defines exactly how we want to solve the user problem with our product or feature.
The design process many tech companies follow today generally involves three phases:
- Divergence: Teams ideate and brainstorm all the possible solution ideas for a given user problem.
- Convergence: Teams prioritize, test, and refine solution ideas to narrow in on a final design.
- Approval & Alignment: Teams look to decision makers for approval which paves a clear path forward into feature development.
While the three-phase design process is common, many product managers are not shown how to work effectively through the entire feature or product design process. As a result, friction can arise between product managers and designers.
On the one side of the design collaboration spectrum, product managers can have unrealistic expectations and expect designers to create a prototype with little to no context. The opposite risk is that a product manager is far too prescriptive during the design process, which can lead to a sub-par output, either because the prescribed solution is weak or the designers on the project feel unable to do their component of the work.
Jiaona saw this pattern repeat far too many times with product managers on her product team, so she decided to develop her own process for feature design. She tried to find the sweet spot of involvement that lay between the two extremes.
- Constrained Divergence: First, she approaches the process of solution ideation with clear constraints in mind. This phase involves translating the three components of the feature opportunity —and any project-specific considerations — into a clear set of constraints. A product manager should communicate these constraints to the design team before brainstorming begins so that all the solutions the team explores are meaningful.
- Iterative Convergence: In this step, product managers should enable design to lead the iterative process of refining and validating prototypes, while PMs bring their unique perspective on the user problem and feature opportunity into each iteration.
- Approval and Alignment: In the final step, product managers should work with their design team to gain approval from product and design leadership. They should build alignment with the core team and other cross-functional stakeholders on the validated designs.
Product Development Phase 3: Development
The third stage of the product development process is the development phase. This phase focuses on the process of executing on a product or feature that has been designed.
To master the development phase of the development process, product managers must nail four key themes.
- Mapping your team refers to the process of determining the work to be done and who will do it.
- Preparation includes the activities that need to happen after design, but before any actual development work occurs, to ensure projects are based on a solid foundation.
- Execution is the structured approach to development that turns a design into a launch-ready feature.
- Risk management refers to the actions that occur in parallel with both preparation and execution to manage risk and unanticipated roadblocks to keep projects on track.
The feature execution map is essentially a playbook for mastering the development phase of the product development process. While we won’t dive deep into each theme, we can highlight key things to know.
1. Cross-Functional Dependency Management
When it comes to cross-functional dependency management, it’s important to keep in mind that a company’s structure greatly influences how work gets done. Product managers should understand the organizational chart and how labor gets divided into major functional areas.
We’ve identified four major functional areas that exist within most tech companies:
- Engineering, Product, and Design: These teams work to develop or improve products. Their work can also include user research, product operations, and more.
- Go-to-Market: These functional teams are focused on getting products into the hands of users. Marketing and sales are typically part of this pillar.
- General & Administrative: This functional area usually includes human resources, accounting, finance, etc.
- Operations: Includes any teams that support users directly when they have questions about the product. Customer success and support are part of the operations functional area.
While the engineering, product, and design teams will build the product, there are key interdependencies between teams, so understanding what each pillar does is valuable to the success of a product launch.
Preparation for the development phase is all about ensuring the project has a solid foundation before development even begins. One way to be prepared is to define these milestones — discoverability, usability, and utility — before embarking on the project.
- The first milestone is discoverability, where a product manager will assess if the user can even find the feature.
- The second milestone is usability which addresses whether or not the user can use the feature.
- And the third milestone is utility, which addresses whether or not the feature solves the user problem.
There are three parts of execution: managing stakeholders, resolving bottlenecks, and the sprint retrospective.
Managing stakeholder communication helps engineering, product, and design teams discuss prioritization and align on commitments. Next teams should check in regularly in an effort to resolve bottlenecks and keep the project on track. Once the product or feature is built, the team will conduct a retro to discuss what could be improved in the next execution cycle.
4. Risk Management
The last consideration during the development phase of the product development process is risk management.
“Change is one of the only constants in product management. PMs need to get really good at managing the unexpected and the uncertain.” Therefore, it’s important for product managers to have a strong risk management skill set.
— Jiaona Zhang, VP of Product at Webflow
There are two main considerations when it comes to risk management during the development phase:
- Dealing With Product Changes: It’s important to anticipate and respond well to product changes that occur in the development process. When issues arise with delivery dates, scope, or alignment, it is key that product managers respond swiftly.
- Making Product Decisions: This consideration boils down to making necessary tradeoffs issues with time, resources, etc. come to light.
The development phase of product work can be high-pressure, but it can be enormously rewarding too. After all, this is when the sausage gets made. It is common for new product managers to begin their product work by focusing on the execution phase of the development process.
“Once product managers demonstrate they’re good at execution, they earn the right to move on to more strategic work associated with higher levels of product management.” — Anand Subramani , SVP of Product at Path
Now let’s look at the final phase of the product development process, launch and iteration.
Product Development Phase 4: Launch & Iteration
The fourth development phase is launch and iteration. This is the manifestation of the product development process. Here, the product manager must ensure a product is launched smoothly, performance is measured, and learnings and new opportunities arising from the feature are synthesized and communicated to other teams.
We can break the system for launching and iterating into three steps.
- Launch coordination is the planning of how and when the team launches a product or feature.
- Performance evaluation is the work of determining what metrics will be measured and how those metrics will be assessed to evaluate performance.
- Post-launch communication is the work of determining which stakeholders will receive updates about the impact and performance.
This phase of product development can be a make or break moment because all too often organizations fail to iterate correctly. Or, they fail to track real success metrics and instead index on metrics that don’t capture the whole story of adoption and retention.
The best product managers set themselves apart by following through the entire launch and iteration stage. And focusing on whether and how to improve or optimize their solution.
A Consistent Product Development Process Is Key
To wrap things up, let's take a brief look at each part of the product development process:
- Opportunity Validation: The process of defining what problems you want to solve and for whom.
- Design: The design phase defines exactly how you want to solve the user problem with a product or feature.
- Development: This phase focuses on the process of executing on a product or feature that has already been designed.
- Launch & Iteration: In the final phase, product managers must ensure a product is launched smoothly, performance is measured, and learnings are communicated to other teams.
While we have introduced you to the four parts of the product development process in this article, the reality is that organizations spend years perfecting their unique processes. The intricacies and nuances across companies and the various types of knowledge product managers need to have to perform their jobs well vary from place to place. Nevertheless, you can rely on these four key pillars as the foundation of what brings a product from the ideation phase to the launch phase.
If you’re interested in learning more, we recommend Product Management Foundations, a program dedicated to providing the key elements of product work to people interested in a product management career.